The Hezhes are one of the smallest ethnic minority groups in China. In fact, poverty and oppression had reduced their numbers to a mere 300 at the time of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Since then, however, they have made speedy advances in their economic life and health care, so that by 1990 the population had grown to 4,640.
They are a nomadic people who live mainly by hunting and fishing in the plain formed by the Heilong, Songhua and Wusuli rivers in Tongjiang, Fuyuan and Raohe counties in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. Their language, which belongs to the Manchu-Tungusic group of the Altaic family, has no written form. For communication with outsiders they use the spoken and written Chinese language.
In winter they travel by sled and hunt on skis. They are also skilled at carpentry, tanning and iron smelting; but these are still cottage industries.
Customs and Culture
Traditional Hezhe clothing is made of fish skins and deer hides. The decorations of the clothes consist of buttons made of catfish bones and collars and cuffs dyed in cloud-shaped patterns. Women wear fish-skin and deer-hide dresses decorated with shells and colored strips of dyed deer hide in cloud, plant and animal designs. Bear skins and birch bark are also used to make thick boots which everyone wears in winter.
Unmarried girls used to tie their hair in one braid, while married women wore two. Bracelets were common ornaments for all women, but only old women wore earrings.
Since the mid-20th century, these styles have fallen out of fashion to a great extent, along with the primitive shamanism which used to be the Hezhes' religion.
Monogamy is the normal practice, but polygamy was sometimes indulged in by the wealthier members of the tribe. Marriage partners had to be selected from among members of other clans, and early marriage, arranged by the parents, was normal. Though remarriage for widows was sanctioned, no marriage ceremony was performed.
The dead were buried in the wilderness, in log-lined pits covered with a mound. Dead infants were bundled in birch bark and suspended from the limbs of trees, in the hope that their souls would be freed into the air and promote the prosperity of the parents.
Story telling and ballad singing are favorite pastimes among the Hezhe people, who have a wealth of folktales. Some of the longer epics and ballads can last for days on end, as tales of ancient heroes are narrated in speech alternating with songs.
Short and lively shuohuli songs used to be sung by the elders to initiate the younger members of the tribe into the tribal lore. The Hezhes also sing songs with extempore words; typical are "jialingkuo" and "henina." Embroidery is a highly developed art among the Hezhes -- probably perfected over the centuries of long winter nights. Geometrical and floral patterns decorate clothing, shoes and tobacco pouches.
They are also noted for their carved wooden furniture, birch bark boxes and utensils, which sport images of Buddha, plants and animals.
The Hezhes trace their lineage back to the nomadic Nuzhens, a race of Tartar horsemen who ravaged the northern borders of several Chinese dynasties. The Hezhes of different regions call themselves by various names, prominent among which are Nanai, Nabei and Naniao -- all meaning "natives" or "aborigines." They first came under Chinese sway during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when the Heilong Military Region was set up to rule the area. In the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the Hezhes were incorporated into the military "eight banner" system of the Manchu rulers.
The Qing government adopted divide-and-rule tactics by giving titles and administrative power to the local tribal chiefs, who then used their privileges to exploit the poorer Hezhes, thus creating a feudal hierarchy.
But it was when they fell under the rule of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo during Japanese occupation of China’s northeast that the Hezhes reached the depths of misery. A policy of genocide was practiced, under which the Hezhes were herded into concentration camps. Their diet was inadequate, as they could no longer hunt and fish freely, and opium addiction was rife. The death toll under these conditions was high and the Hezhes dwindled rapidly in numbers, reaching the point of extinction as a separate ethnic group just before China’s national liberation in 1949.
Resurgence of the Hezhe people
With the end of the War of Resistance Against Japan in 1945, the Hezhes took an active part in the Chinese People's Liberation Army's mopping-up operations against remnant Kuomintang forces in their area.
They then returned to their old hunting grounds and rebuilt their homes with help from the central government. Loans and relief funds enabled them to resume their traditional way of life. Farming was encouraged and many of the Hezhes went in for it, as others formed production teams to pursue hunting and fishing. With their initiative brought into full play, the Hezhes began to have a thriving economy. Electricity has transformed their once-gloomy dwellings with light, radios, TV sets and other conveniences of modern life. Textiles, leather and rubber have replaced the old animal skins they used to wrap themselves in, and up-to-date educational and medical facilities are available, even for the Hezhes who continue to lead a nomadic life.
The Hezhes run their own affairs in Fuyuan County's Xiabacha Hezhe Autonomous Township, and send deputies to local, provincial and national People's Congresses.